Coaching & Development | Apr 9, 2014
It’s All About Culture

Sir Graham Henry, Former Head Coach of the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, spoke about what it takes to build an incredibly strong team with such an unmistakable identity.

Mixing a bit of humor with the narration of his 41 years of experience coaching, he joked that you would need to be crazy to coach the All Blacks. Then, putting the joking aside, he proudly stated that the strong culture of sacrifice, commitment, and unity is what makes the All Blacks perhaps the most successful team on the planet.

Sir Graham described his experiences, mentioning that the team was already a success when he took over, but it was his responsibility to take the team to even higher levels of greatness. He realized right away that he needed to apply new coaching and management skills for the team’s future development. His concept was that he would work toward the development of the team members as people, not only as players. The key word here is personal program. Every player would have a target/goal as an individual, and this would include several vital elements such as strength and conditioning, nutrition, self-awareness, team culture and principles that would be carried on with the player even if he went to play for another team. In other words, there was a clear idea of what an All Blacks player was and of what he stood for.

This was not an easy task, and one of the greatest challenges was to deal with the lack of ‘mental skills’ that led to conflicts with players who couldn’t handle the pressure, leading to internal fights and low performance. Like any other skill, this was dealt with through training and the teaching of brain physiology. Players learned to manage the pressure, refocus, play, and perform to their best.

Leadership groups were formed where 7 players worked with coaches; while 4 players worked on tactics for the weekend game, 3 players would be working on team integration by sitting and eating together, and learning to respect and trust one another. Integrating team leaders was a key to the success of the team; some days the coaches ran training sessions and other days the team leaders took command.

The speaker described some mistakes made along the way. For example, in 2009 several players suffered injuries because they were put under too much pressure. At that time, they didn’t have the opportunity to make choices and take decisions related to their training; the coaches were doing that, so management recapitulated and created a culture where players are involved in the decisions and participate in meetings to plan how to improve the team’s performance.

Sir Graham’s closing remarks restated the team’s unique identity. The famous Haka dance that they perform before each game symbolizes the connection between themselves and the challenging team as part of the long continuity of people on Earth. The legacy of the All Blacks team is its sense of purpose, its backbone and sacrifice, its ability to do extraordinary things and recover from failure and stand up again and win. They share the team ‘warrior’ mentality of facing your enemy with bravery but also with humility. Truly, this was an inspiring story.

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